3-year heart-shaped odyssey around China, by sheepdog-pulled wheelchair and bicycle

Straits Times Animal Antics

LIUZHOU, China (CHINA DAILY/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - There are many ways to express love, but Ding Yizhou chose one that few would attempt: following a heart-shaped itinerary around China with his girlfriend, who uses a wheelchair.

The couple embarked on their trek from his home town of Liuzhou, in the Guangxi Zhuang autonomous region, on Jan 3. Mr Ding, 27, estimated that the trip would take three years to complete.

The journey resulted from a wish by his girlfriend, Lai Ming. She was diagnosed with hereditary spinocerebellar ataxia when she was 21. The progressive, degenerative disease has left Ms Lai, now 28, unable to walk.

Mr Ding, a primary school classmate, found out last year that her condition had deteriorated. He contacted her after noticing that she had signed off on a QQ instant-messaging post by saying: "How will my friends be if I die someday?"

Out of compassion, he came to take care of Ms Lai. The two gradually fell in love.

To help with the treatment of her disease, Mr Ding spent all his savings. He even bought lottery tickets in the hope of winning a fortune to cover the expenses. Despite his efforts, Ms Lai's situation did not improve.

She once told him that she would rather go out and record her visits to places across China on camera, rather than simply stay put and wait to die. That inspired Mr Ding to come up with the idea for their adventure.

He began to prepare for the trip in November, and spent about 16 days modifying his girlfriend's wheelchair to make it more suitable for a long-distance journey. He installed a shelf on the wheelchair for necessities like food, water and an umbrella.

Mr Ding decided to use an old English sheepdog to pull the wheelchair, while he rode a mountain bike.

When they hit the road, he had just 200 yuan (S$43), which he thought would last them a couple of weeks.

"I don't have enough money on me, but money is not an issue," Mr Ding said, adding that he does hairdressing for villagers along the way when he is short of money.

He also earns money by doing farm work. In Wuxuan county in the city of Laibin, Mr Ding earned more than 30 yuan by picking sugar cane.

The wheelchair has posed the biggest problem so far. It broke three times in the first five days of the trip. Mr Ding welded the wheelchair to reinforce it when they arrived in Wuxuan.

When he first mentioned his adventure to friends, nobody paid attention because they all thought he was joking.

But after Mr Ding posted a picture online showing that the adventure was already under way, a couple of friends caught up with him to give their support.

The tour also made headlines and many people, touched by Mr Ding's story, offered donations. He has received more than 12,000 yuan and an electric bicycle. As more people tried to contact him to offer donations, Mr Ding said he decided not to accept any more.

"I should not have accepted donations in the first place," he said. "After all, it was a personal dream that we wished to accomplish by ourselves."

However, he added: "As I've already accepted some donations, I will make every penny count."

Mr Ding and Ms Lai travel only a few kilometres every day on their route, which will form the shape of a heart.

They plan to reach Nanning, the capital of Guangxi, before heading to Yunnan province. The ultimate destination is Tibet, but that will depend on Ms Lai's physical condition.

"The purpose of the trip is to enjoy the scenery, and to experience different customs and cultures along the way," Mr Ding said. "So we are not in a hurry and I don't worry over whether we can make it. The pursuit of a dream is just as enjoyable as fulfilling it."